But there are many other things to consider. It's really not that easy, is it? Unconfirmed or not, if there is even an oh-so-slight possibility of a correlation between height and intelligence, wouldn't it be better if the kid was tall? On the other hand, intelligence doesn't necessarily make happy, does it? Neither does it guarantee wealth. But you also don't want to end up asking your daughter If You're So Dumb, Why Aren't You Rich?
And then there is the unavoidable question of boy or girl. In a progressive society as ours, we of course wouldn't fall for the prejudices of our ancestors who thought a man more worthy than only his rib. No, we would rely on what research says, and who wouldn't want a pleasantly smiling baby? So you might want to take into account that "As Infants, Girls Appear More Emotionally Stable than Boys: Boys were more likely to cry and fuss and to turn, twist [...] They were really just trying to get attention". (I couldn't find a study that says at which age this behaviour stops.) Anyway, if you still want a boy, make sure his ring finger isn't too long.
Gee, it's getting really complicated with the design, isn't it? And it's getting more complicated the more we think we know about humans. Wasn't that nice in those days when we could just have sex? *sigh* But nowadays, you know, we just want the best for the kid.
Besides all these important points, there's the question of looks. Yah sure, we all know good looks don't matter, it's the inner value that counts, blahblah. But it can't harm if the kid is tall, and blond, and has a perfect nose, can it? So, honestly, if you could change anything about your looks, would you?
Just among the two of us, I for my part would really like to be some inches taller. I'm not much of a designer babe, but it's mostly Italian and French women's clothes that actually come in sizes I can wear. Such, the outcome of my shopping trips is either unnecessarily expensive or unnecessarily unfashionable.
Anyway, before I start complaining about this fuzzy hair that runs in the family, consider for a moment a world in which everybody could change arbitrarily the way he or she looks. Customize your hair and skin color, heights, bra-size, whatever. Don't like your toes? Your butt? That belly fat? Blink it away (who needs toes anyway). Okay, done? What would we have then?
To begin with we'd have a lot of beautiful people that fit into designer clothes, and who change their looks according the the recent fashion. Now lets see where this gets us. Well, our perception of beauty has grown with evolution. Characteristics we prefer most often have a biological background, and are linked to health, fertility, intelligence. The subtleties however change over time, with culture and tradition. Interestingly, they change rather fast, that is within only a couple of generations. E.g. I'd guess most Kate's from today would find the probable status of Leopold's teeth utterly repelling, and I wouldn't touch a guy with a wig. Even more interesting is how attractive we consider body fat or a tan (rspt. absence thereof), ornamental extensions or various kinds of creative self-mutilation.
Humans differ from other species mostly through the amount of time they spend thinking about something else than survival. A considerable fraction of that time is spend thinking about themselves, and about what others think about them (one can iterate that some more times). So we've used our big brains to form a society that provides possibilities to sneak around what we consider evolutionary disadvantages. The (logical?) continuation being to directly influence the 'fitness' of our genes.
The pre-stage to this fitness-enhancement already exists: we bleach our teeth to a 'healthy white', shampoo ourselves sexy, remove unwanted hair, get breast implants, take hormones for the fatter muscles, and pills for softer skin (you find the links in your junk mail folder).
And we hear people proclaiming they do it for themselves because it makes them they feel better. Sadly, even after you subtract self-deception, I think to a certain degree this might actually be true. It makes us feel better if we do what we think is the best to make ourselves loved - whether or not it works on the long run:
- Breast implants linked to suicide risk
"Women who receive implants for breast enhancement are three times more likely to commit suicide, according to a new report that offered a sobering view of an increasingly popular surgery. Deaths related to mental disorders, including alcohol or drug dependence, also were three times higher among women who had the cosmetic procedure, researchers said. The report in the Annals of Plastic Surgery's August issue was the most recent to detect a higher suicide rate among women who had their breasts enlarged, providing a gloomy counterpoint to studies that showed women felt better about themselves after getting implants. Though the study did not look at the reasons behind the suicides, senior author Joseph McLaughlin, a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said he believed that many had psychological problems before getting implants and that their conditions did not improve afterward."
However, once we've outlived our evolutionary programme that suggests a link between the appearances that are currently considered 'beautiful' and healthy spouses, these labels of attractiveness are destined to loose their appeal - or is there an universal kind of beauty that will survive? Can we rely on 'beautiful' tomatoes to be healthy, and harmful things to smell nasty?
Extrapolate that to the next generation and to other criteria than looks (do we really know what intelligence is?). If you design your 21st century boy according to your best understanding of optimal fitness you might just go completely wrong. Our knowledge has been overthrown repeatedly during the evolution of mankind, and there's no reason to believe our generation in exceptional in this regard.
Now you are faced with a situation where you will need to predict where evolution goes, so your spouse fits in optimally - and that prediction is affected by how much we believe in our prediction. Good thing we have such big brains to intelligently design our babies, eh?
- “If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavor”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt
Besides spending time on thinking about ourselves, another factor that seems to be characteristic to mankind is the arrogance that came with intelligence. The believe that we are capable to improve within a decade or two what nature has worked on for millions of years, and the conviction that we will be able to cope with all potential trouble we cause. It seems nature favors optimists, so we are loosing inhibitions to cause problems because we're sure we can solve them in time. I'm not against genetic engineering - it surely has a vast number of potential benefits. I'm just pointing out that if applied in abundance, there is the probability we kick off a boulder rolling downhills in our back, and we'll have to spend our last breath running ever faster, away from the spirits that we called.
But let us just for a moment humor the idea that we design away many of the links between beauty and fitness that evolution has left us with. The interesting question is then, if all our developed criteria for 'beauty' fail - what would they be superseded by? And what would that mean for our scientific endeavors?
- “How many leading theoretical physicists were once insecure, small, pimply boys who got their revenge besting the jocks (who got the girls) in the one place they could—math class?”
Not to mention those of us who had to endure the insecurity of the small, pimply boys (sorry, couldn't resist. This sentence is definitely a highlight of the book). Anyway, what would a world without all the small, pimply boys look like? More beautiful? More boring?
Our perception of beauty is strongly linked to us being human. It has been formed through millions of years of evolution. Is there any reason to expect what we consider 'beautiful' is of cosmic significance? I there any reason to expect that us favouring symmetric patterns is linked to a fundamental feature of nature's laws?
Some while ago I sat in a seminar on cosmic strings, and I saw an animation about structure formation within that scenario. My immediate reaction was disgust - for the simple reason that I was reminded of a pile of crawling worms. I'm really sorry about it, but I'd call this utterly ugly, and I'd see a chance this might consciously or unconsciously influence my decisions to work on a topic. If you think this is totally nuts, then what makes you think other people's 'GUT-feeling', their intuitive liking or disliking, is more reliable? How many people work in astrophysics because they find the Hubble images beautiful? How many people are discouraged from becoming scientists because textbooks are 'ugly' (or the boys are insecure and pimply). And does this affect progress in research?
But more seriously: These worms really made me think. Are we too caught up in our human prejudices for beauty? Can we understand how the universe works without abandoning the limitations of being human? And can we consciously do that?
- "One always overcompensates for disabilities. I'm thinking of having my entire body surgically removed."
See also: The Beauty of it all
Since I'm tired of accusations made by people who didn't read what I wrote, or were not able to understand it, here's what I said in a nutshell.
1) Our perception of beauty has developed with evolution. What reason do we have to believe it is good guidance to understand the fundamental laws of nature?
2) If we aim to intelligently design the next generation, we should be aware that we are limited by our own intelligence. Do we want to pass that on?
What I've not said is
3) All theoretical physicists were once insecure, small, pimply boys, and that's why they understand the universe
4) Big boobs are beautiful.